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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Nebraska Overrides Veto, Abolishes Death Penalty

Most death sentences are overturned, so let's stop the morbid farce

The Nebraska legislature voted 30-19 yesterday to override the governor’s veto and end the death penalty in the state. Nebraska is the seventh state in 8 years to abolish capital punishment.

The move was driven by a bipartisan group of legislators, who argued that the death penalty had grown inefficient and ineffective. Nebraska hadn’t executed anyone since 1997, and until recently had struggled to get the drugs needed to carry out executions. . . .

Sixteen Republicans joined with 13 Democrats and one independent in support of the override. All 19 votes in support of Mr. Ricketts’ veto were lodged by Republicans.

The vote shows how the politics around the death penalty have shifted in recent years, amid a spate of executions that haven’t gone as planned, shortages of drugs needed to carry out lethal injections, and fears that the system ensnares people who aren’t guilty. . . .

Once universally hailed by conservatives as an indispensable tool for prosecutors, the death penalty is now also seen by many conservatives as a costly and unmanageable government program.

“It’s not pro-life, it’s not limited government, and doesn’t deter crime,” said Marc Hyden, a coordinator with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which was launched in 2013.

Capital Punishment in Retreat

Currently, nineteen states and the District of Colombia have no enforceable death penalty. The governors of Washington and Oregon have also recently issued moratoriums on execution based on concerns about how it is applied.

Two states with capital punishment laws (Kansas and New Hampshire) have not actually killed anyone since 1976, and most other death penalty states actually execute very few people.

California, for instance, has the largest death row in the country, with over 700 condemned prisoners, but despite spending over $4 billion on death penalty cases since 1980, the state has only managed to execute 13 people. 

Nationally, both death sentences and executions are in decline:


Public support for capital punishment, while still high, is also trending downward:


Are We Sending Innocent People to Die?

Much of the concern over the death penalty is the possibility that innocent people might be sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit.

History shows those fears are well-grounded: since the 1970s, while 1,408 people have been executed, 153 people have been fully exonerated from death row.

That’s not a great batting average — and it can take decades for proof of innocence to come to light. Those 153 people spent on average over 11 years in prison waiting to be killed — and in some cases as long as four decades — before being vindicated.

A wider look at the numbers shows that the overwhelming majority of death sentences are overturned.

A review of all 8,466 death penalty cases since 1973 found that, excluding inmates who are still on death row or died without being released or executed, 64% of all death sentences are eventually overturned on appeal.

In 36% of cases, a judge throws out the sentence; in 18%, the conviction is overturned entirely; and in 11%, the statute they were sentenced under was ruled unconstitutional.

Political scientist Frank Baumgartner explains,

Throwing out a duly enrolled conviction is not something that state or federal appellate courts do because of a misplaced paperclip on a brief. State appellate courts and federal judges are not knee-jerk opponents of capital punishment; they participate in a system that imposes it regularly.

But both Republican and Democratic appointees have voted to overturn these convictions because they so often involve such issues as evidence withheld from the defense, improper instructions to the jury, or other serious flaws in the original trials.

The judicial system isn’t perfect. What are the odds that all of the 3,000 prisoners on death rows around the country are guilty? Do they all definitely deserve to die? We know better.

Other states should follow Nebraska’s lead and abolish the expensive, ineffective, and inefficient policy that puts life and death in government’s hands.

I discussed the death penalty and trends in its use and support with Newsweek’s Nicholas Wapshott earlier this month on the Leslie Marshall Show.

  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.